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The Life of John Leland: Sinner Saved by Faith Alone

Note: This is the first entry in a three part series on the Life of John Leland.

Introduction & Overview of John Leland’s Life

John Leland was born in Grafton, Massachusetts on May 14, 1754, and he died at age 86 on January 14, 1841 in Cheshire, Massachusetts.[i]

As a child he was not favored among his teachers. One teacher said this of him, “John has more knowledge than good manners.”[ii] Leland remembered the following:

In early life I had a thirst for learning. At five years old, by the instruction of a school dame, I could read the Bible currently, and afterwards, in the branches of learning, [I was] taught in common schools, I made as good proficiency as common. But what proficiency soever I made in learning (owing to a stiffness of nature and rusticity of manners) I could never gain the good will of my masters, nor was I a favorite among the scholars.[iii]

He wanted to be a lawyer, but his wishes were disappointed.[iv] Leland wrote about his lack of resources and how he read the Bible a lot as a child: “As my father had no library, and I was fond of reading, the Bible was my best companion.”[v]

As an adult he stood almost six feet tall, and was thin and spare.[vi] He married Sally Devine of Hopkinton, Massachusetts on September 30, 1776,[vii] and they had eight children.[viii]

Leland was known as the “Mammoth Priest.”[ix] He began preaching at age 18 in 1774, and he preached approximately 8,000 sermons over the course of his life.[x] It is described that Leland, “traveled distances, which, together, would form a girdle nearly sufficient to go round the terraqueous globe three times.”[xi] He baptized 1,524 people.[xii] The oldest person he ever baptized was 90 years old, in 1800. The youngest person he baptized was 9 years old, in 1788.[xiii] The number of Baptist ministers he personally knew was 962. Out of these he heard 303 of them preach, and 207 of them visited him at his home. Leland published about 30 pamphlets.[xiv] It also appears he was able to sing, and play the fiddle. He put these talents to work for the preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, “On Sunday, after service, I told the people that I had opened a dancing school, which I would attend one quarter gratis: that I would fiddle the tune which the angels sung, if they would dance repentance on their knees. The project succeeded; the dancing school gave way, and my meetings were thronged.”[xv]

A simple obelisk of blue marble marks John and Sally Leland’s grave. It says, “Here lies the body of the Rev. John Leland, of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men. He died January, 14, 1841, aged 86 years and 8 months.”[xvi]

John Leland was first and foremost a sinner saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Second, he was a preacher-evangelist. Third, he was a statesman-patriot. These three aspects of his life serve to outline the following summary of his life.

I. John Leland – Sinner Saved by Faith Alone in Jesus Christ Alone

Leland recounted that his early life consisted of indulging in sin. Even though his father and mother were believers, and John read the Bible a lot, it appears that he didn’t experience conviction for his sin until age 18, in 1772. It was at this time that he described how his sin began losing all the sweetness it once had.[xvii] A young woman he had been to many dances with was converted and then baptized.[xviii] Her conversion urged him to consider his life: “Reading the Bible and meditating on the shortness of time, and the importance of being prepared for death and judgment, occupied the chiefest of my time.”[xix] He made a vow to God that he would, “forsake all sinful courses and seek the Lord, if he would direct me how.”[xx]

For years he struggled with knowing his eternal condition, because he didn’t meet what he believed were pre-requisites of true conversion:

For a number of months before I had settled hope of my interest in Christ, the plan of atonement, by the blood of the Lamb, appeared to me as plain as ever it has since. Once, I remember to have broke out thus, when walking in the road: “O what a complete Saviour is Jesus, every way suited to my needs: I can be saved no other way – I do not wish to be saved any other way – but fear I shall never be saved in that way.”[xxi]

He spoke publicly about the Bible for the first time in February of 1774. The occasion was a dispute with a preacher who came through town. He described that the preacher was, “unclear in his mind about how salvation was given freely by grace.”[xxii] Leland didn’t believe he was a Christian at the time, but that the Lord used this event to give him saving faith in Christ and assurance:

I felt confident in myself that I did tremble before the greatness, and rejoice in the goodness of God; and spake with myself thus: “I am converted, and will not believe Satan anymore when he tells me otherwise.” . . . . My desire was to be searched, not deceived . . . . My heart was greatly attached to Scripture. I have not yet forgot the burning desire – the soul-longings that I had to know what was the mind of God, contained in his word. I would read – then pray – then read and pray again, etc. that I might know the truth as it is in Jesus.[xxiii]

Shortly after this he was convinced again that he was not a Christian, but upon reading Proverbs 30:5 he believed the Scripture to be pure and he felt his soul yield up to Christ and trust in Him. After this event – despite many trials, temptations, lingering doubts in future years, and feelings at times that he was not converted – he never again said he did not know Christ or that he was unconverted.[xxiv]

Leland – A Repenting Sinner

Even though he was a believer he could see more evil in him than he could see or even believe there was in the young converts under his preaching.[xxv] He writes, “I found more corruption in me than can be described.”[xxvi] In June of 1774 Elder Noah Alden, of Bellingham, baptized him at Northbridge with seven others.[xxvii] That year he also became a member of the Bellingham church.[xxviii]

He was not a Deist or Universalist.[xxix] He clearly did not apply the promises and precepts addressed to believers in Scripture to non-Christians. Also, he did not apply the terrors of the law to, “them who are in Christ Jesus.”[xxx] He held that God is sovereign, but also that men are responsible for their sin,[xxxi] “That God is good, and that men are rebellious; that salvation is of the Lord, and damnation of ourselves, are truths revealed as plain as a sunbeam.”[xxxii] He preached that salvation is by Christ’s work alone:

Repentance for bad works, and the practice of good works, I strive to preach; but, as repentance will not expiate crimes, and the deeds of the law will not justify, redemption by Christ is essential. The salvation of God includes three things: first, something done for us, without us; second, something done for us, within us; third, something done by us.[xxxiii]

His balance on this point is instructive even as debates continue today.

Regarding baptism, he wrote that it doesn’t put away the filth of our sin, but that it “figures out” the salvation of a soul, “which is by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead: who died for our sins and rose again for our justification.”[xxxiv] Leland exhibited the convictions of a true evangelical.[xxxv] The further sketches of Leland’s life go on to describe how he would speak of his convictions:

He insisted, in absolute and unqualified terms, on the great fundamental truths of the gospel, the necessity of regeneration, faith and repentance; but, on points not essential to salvation, though his opinions were no less firmly established, and he never shrunk from advocating them on proper occasions, yet he did not censure or denounce those who differed from him, nor exclude from fellowship, as Christians, any who gave evidence of a gracious change, whatever might be their peculiar doctrinal views.[xxxvi]

Leland – A Man of Humility

Even though he preached thousands of sermons to thousands of people he recognized his sin and was humbled by the justice and perfections of God:

My only hope of acceptance with God, is in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. And when I come to Christ for pardon, I come as an old grey-headed sinner; in the language of the publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ . . . . O, that the God of all grace would keep me in his holy care, and never suffer me to make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience, but make me faithful unto death, that I might finish my course with joy and receive a crown at last.[xxxvii]

He placed no hope of his own eternal rest in the things he had or the things he did, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone. He fought his sin to the end of his life:

The sins of childhood – the vices of youth – the improprieties, pride and arrogance of riper years; with the presumptuous and blasphemous suggestions of my mind, up till the present time, lie heavy on my mind, and sink my spirits very low. It is true, I have had a hope for more than fifty years, that my sins were atoned for by the blood of Jesus Christ, and forgiven for his name’s sake; but I still find them attached to my character, and must forever, for truth cannot decease.[xxxviii]

In fact, Leland expresses repentance and sorrow for sin and wasted years again and again in his autobiography: “Nothing of importance happened in 1789,”[xxxix] – “1804…I continued two years, which, (as it respects my ministry,) was a gap of lost time,”[xl] – “1829…Nothing singular with respect to myself has occurred in the course of the last year,”[xli] – “1830…Another year of my unprofitable life is gone. Nothing worth recording has taken place with me in the year.”[xlii] He believed his life and work to be feeble; yet, he knew that God was great. In a letter to his daughter three years before his death, on August 8, 1838, he wrote, “My life is not in my own hands, but I commit it, and all that I have, to the care of that Gracious Being who has fed and preserved me through an unprofitable life.”[xliii] He was a weak and humble man who had a great Savior, Jesus Christ.

Leland – A Man of Prayer

His humility drove him to his knees. John Leland’s utter dependence upon Christ made him into a man of prayer. At least two things are constant themes throughout his life: (1) He was always preaching the gospel. (2) He was always praying. This is plain to see again and again. The events of his life were accompanied by the conviction, and the strong urge to pray.[xliv] He described it as a “spirit of prayer”, and often this resulted in praying for the conversions of his hearers, but also in praying for safety during times of danger.[xlv] Here’s how he started many of his prayers, “Supremely great, infinitely glorious, highly exalted, everywhere present, all-wise and eternal God.”[xlvi] His prayers spoke of the great and awesome God revealed in the Holy Bible.

Last Years

Leland believed firmly that men were not able to change hearts by will power. In his later years he observed younger preachers emerging with a different view:

January 28, 1835. – I have been preaching for sixty years to convince men that human powers were too degenerate to effect a change of heart by self-exertion; and all the revivals of religion that I have seen have substantially accorded with that sentiment. But now a host of preachers and people have risen up, who ground salvation on the foundation that I have sought to demolish. The world is gone after them, and their converts increase abundantly.[xlvii]

He believed that men couldn’t save themselves, but only God could “effect a change of heart.” He attributed this view, of a degenerate mankind, to be part of the soil out of which the revivals he had witnessed in his life flourished.

As an old man, Leland felt like his life and work were eclipsed, but in his humility he resolved to pass the baton of ministry to the next generation:

May 14, 1830. – It is now said that there is a great ingathering into the fold of Christ in all the country around; but according to appearances, I am left behind. Well, let me, like John the Baptist, be full of joy, that others increase while I decrease. I have had my day, and must now give way to the young. The unchangeable God has one class of servants after another to work in his vineyard.[xlviii]

He was content to see the Lord work how He decided was best. This being said, his next entry describes how he assumed that God was done with him a little prematurely. The Lord had plans to use him in the great ingathering that was taking place:

July 11. – Why art thou cast down, O my soul! The morning cometh as well as the night. Since writing the above note, God has graciously poured out his spirit in Hancock. Yesterday I baptized ten, which, together with three scattering ones, raises my baptismal list to fourteen hundred and eighty-four.[xlix]

He had seen many changes throughout the course of his life. The last thing he wrote in his autobiography recounted this:

July 4, 1835. – It is now fifty-nine years since the independence of the United States was declared. In this length of time the inhabitants have increased from three to fourteen millions. The changes that have taken place are innumerable. Sixty-five years ago I was old enough to observe the face of things, and see what was going on: had I been in a dead sleep the sixty-five years, and were now awake, such a change has taken place in the face of the earth, in architecture, in all the arts, in costume and regimen, and in the forms of religion, that I should doubt whether I had awakened in the same world. The love of money, sexual correspondence, diseases and death, however, remain stationary.[l]

He remained humble to the end. Toward the end of his life he said, “Bury me in an humble manner. I want no encomiums; I deserve none. I feel myself a poor, miserable sinner, and Christ is my only hope.”[li]

[i] Works, 9, 49, 50. I updated some of the spellings in quotations throughout this biography in order aide to readers.

[ii] Works, 10.

[iii] Works, 10.

[iv] Works, 10.

[v] Works, 10.

[vi] Works, 72. His biographer wrote that the sketch included in this brief biography was closer to the likeness of his appearance than any written description could ascertain.[vii] Works, 19.[viii] Works, 29.

[ix] Works, 32.

[x] He didn’t write his sermons, so unfortunately there are not many left in existence: “[A]s it is well known that he never wrote even the heads of his sermons, the memories of his hearers are the only source from which we can now draw, for even these.” Works, 46.

[xi] Works, 35.

[xii] Works, 39.

[xiii] Works, 38.

[xiv] Works, 35.

[xv] Works, 24, 27, 28. He wrote at least 10 hymns that are preserved on pages 322-9 of his works.

[xvi] Works, 50. Leland requested that this be the phrase written on his grave marker if anyone was going to write something about his life. (48) On the south side it says, “Sarah, consort of Rev. John Leland. She died October 5, 1837, aged 84 years.” Lastly, on the north side it says, “This monument was erected by the children of the deceased, to point out the resting-place of their revered parents.” (50)

[xvii] Works, 11.

[xviii] Works, 11.

[xix] Works, 11.

[xx] Works, 11.

[xxi] Works 12.

[xxii] Works, 13.

[xxiii] Works, 14.

[xxiv] Works, 14. One can really get a sense of this by reading his autobiography.[xxv] Works, 15.

[xxvi] Works, 15-16.

[xxvii] Works, 16.

[xxviii] Works, 19.

[xxix] Works, 10, 24, 47. He was converted under the preaching of Elhanan Winchester who later became an American Universalist “evangelist”. Scarberry Law Piece, 746. Leland clearly did not follow Winchester’s theological trajectory.

[xxx] Works, 68.

[xxxi] Works, 68-69.

[xxxii] Works, 68.

[xxxiii] Works, 69.

[xxxiv] Works, 38.

[xxxv] Sample’s Virginia Baptists, 1810.

[xxxvi] Works, 51.

[xxxvii] Works, 35.

[xxxviii] Works, 37.

[xxxix] Works, 29.

[xl] Works, 32.

[xli] Works, 37.

[xlii] Works, 37.

[xliii] Works, 46.

[xliv] Works, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 26, 29, 30, 31.

[xlv] Works, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 26, 29, 30, 31.

[xlvi] Works, 66.

[xlvii] Works, 39.

[xlviii] Works, 38.

[xlix] Works, 38.

[l] Works, 40.

[li] Works, 49.

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